Tips for Living Environmentally Friendly

Jacob Gordon and Collin Dunn
Senior Writers,
Wednesday, April 18, 2007; 2:00 PM

Want to reduce your impact on the environment? Senior writers Jacob Gordon and Collin Dunn with, a Web site providing tips and do-it-yourself projects both large and small for making your life more "sustainable," were online Wednesday, April 18 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions and dole out advice.

The transcript follows.


Collin Dunn: Hey everyone, thanks for joining us today. Jacob and I will do our best to answer your questions and give you some resources for further reading and info. Keep the questions coming!


Arlington, Va.: I admire your attempts to get people to act in a more environmentally friendly way, but it seems like you're trying to put a fire out with a straw. The problems of global warming are so monumentally huge that voluntary measure taken by only those with an unusual commitment to environmental causes won't go very far. Are you aligned with a political group that can put pressure on our elected leaders to make more significant changes?

Jacob Gordon: Quite to the contrary, one of TreeHugger's underlying missions is to help push the concepts of sustainability into the mainstream. At times this may look like "lite green" bits and pieces of eco-information, but the over thrust, if it works, is to make environmental awareness a broadly recognized concept. TreeHugger tries to spread the word about organizations doing good work whenever we can, but we are not officially aligned with any one of them. This is partly because we try not to pigeon hole ourselves too much -- we'd like to have as broad an appeal as we can.


Falls Church, Va.: I am looking for a non-toxic paint to use on interior walls. A small price premium is okay, but performance must be good. I see AFM SafeCoat only is available at a store 30 minutes from my house. Have you used this brand? Is it good quality? The price per gallon appears to be around $32 rather than $20 for Behr, which I know is good quality and I can get at Home Depot much closer to my house. Any advice you can impart on low-VOC paints that perform well would be appreciated.

Collin Dunn: Great question! I personally have used AFM SafeCoat with good results, so I have no problem recommending it. However, everyone's personal preference is different; thankfully, there are lots of other options (and more coming every day, it seems) depending on your needs for colors and what's nearby. TreeHugger polled our readers to see what they liked; here are the results. We took another look at some low- and no-VOC options here. To learn a little more about the differences between low- and no-VOC (and what you are breathing when you don't use it), this also recently was published. We've also taken a closer look at a few other low-VOC paint manufacturers, who all have different colors and availabilities, depending on your needs: YOLO Colourhous, Sico and Anna Sova. TreeHugger also partnered up with Domino magazine for their green issue, and came up with a bunch of paint options.

While a lot of these have differing VOC content, generally no-VOC is better than low-VOC, and low-VOC is better than conventional paint; beyond that, it's up to you to pick the color and price point. Good luck!


New Brunswick, N.J.: I want to slowly begin using some solar-rechargeable batteries. Where can I read more about these and how to buy them and the "solar rechargers" (whatever they are!)?

Jacob Gordon: Rechargeable batteries are at a really good point right now. They work well, are cheap enough, and last a long time. A lot of the problems we might remember for earlier generations -- like the memory effect -- are not much of an issue any more. Nickel Metal Hydride batteries are the type you'll find at the store to replace regular sized ones like AA, AAA, 9-volt, etc. You can find a lot more info in our How to Green Your Electronics guide.

Most solar chargers are designed to plug into devices with built-in lithium ion batteries like cell phones, iPods, etc. They're pretty cheap and work quite well. Many have built in batteries as well, so they can be charged up in the sun, and then can charge up your device when you need it.


Potomac, Md.: I've heard conflicting reports on the benefit of planting more trees to combat global warming. Is it true that planting more trees in temperate climate regions (such as the Mid-Atlantic) actually contributes to global warming because the leaves absorb more heat than the amount of CO2 eliminated by the tree?

Jacob Gordon: I've heard this argument too, and while I can't claim to have a well-researched answer, my first thought is that the leaves are likely to still be lighter in color than the exposed earth below. In the absence of trees, what color will the ground be -- black, brown? Trees and leafy plants also perform what's called evapotranspiration, the effect by which heat is dissipated as a result of the increased surface area from the leaves. There are the, of course, the many other benefits of tree: absorption of CO2, as you said, the creation of habitats for wildlife, filtration of water, support for topsoil, the production of food -- the list goes on.

Great question, though. I'll look into it more.


Washington, D.C.: I think a good start would be to eliminate incandescent lighting. We should try to ban its production.

Jacob Gordon: Absolutely. Households that haven't changed over to CFLs (compact fluorescent bulbs) should make the switch. Australia plans to phase out incandescent bulbs altogether by 2009, and California is considering the same thing.


Cleveland: Can you please give some tips for living green while renting an apartment? I can't make any permanent changes to my apartment to increase its efficiency, such as replacing windows or large, inefficient appliances. Thanks for your help.

Collin Dunn: You'll probably hear this from us again, but the first thing I would do is change out all of your incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). They use about 65-70 percent less energy (an 11 or 15 Watt bulb can replace a 70 W bulb), last about 5 times as long (10,000 hours, on average, vs. about 2,000 hours for incandescents) and the light quality has really improved over the past few years so that you sometimes can't even tell a difference between. Depending on the bulb, they can take a few minutes to warm up, but once it's on, it'll save you energy and money ($30-$40 over the life of the bulb!). I'd also recommend switching to a low-flow showerhead; you can cut back the water flow to under a gallon per minute, which, depending on your current setup, can save you 20 or 30 gallons of water each time you take a shower (and this will also save you money, if you pay for your own water). You can also add aerators to kitchen and bathroom faucets -- they essentially serve the same purpose as a low-flow showerhead -- which cuts back on water flow, but not on pressure. Also, watch out for what's known as "phantom power" or "vampire power" -- what happens when you leave appliances plugged in, but not turned on. It seems trivial, but can add between 10 percent and 20 percent to your energy bill. To avoid this, you can put everything you use at the same time (TV, stereo, DVD player, etc.) on one power strip, and then just flip the switch on the strip when you're done. These are all improvements that you can take with you, too, if you move, so you don't end up investing in anything that you can't keep. More reading here on compact flourescents, low-flow showerheads and phantom power.


Domino issue: I just had to comment when I read you partnered with Domino on their Green issue. That was one of the best issues of that magazine! It really effectively described how to get the products, and that they could be just as beautiful as conventional products. Kudos!

Jacob Gordon: Hey thanks! We love Domino, needless to say, and we're thrilled to help pass along info on green living. So glad you dug it and stay tuned for more!

Collin Dunn: Indeed, thanks very much for your kind words. We had a blast working with the Domino folks, and couldn't be happier with the results. TreeHugger is always excited to help showcase how living a "green" lifestyle can be fun, hip, sexy and cool. Thanks for reading!


Arlington, Va.: I have trouble making decisions when there are trade-offs. The best example I can think of now is: should I use paper towels made from trees, or should I use cloth towels, which also require energy to produce and must be laundered (and I can't dry them outside because I live in an apartment). Is there a comparison?

Jacob Gordon: Hey, that's a great question and I'm so glad you are weighing the factors involved. These issues can be analyzed in many ways and there often isn't one black-and-white answer at all, but in this case, I do think that reusable cloths are the way to go. Both the paper and cloth towels take water, energy, chemicals (likely bleaches), and virgin or recycled resources to create. But those paper towels are really going to add up over the years. Considering that you'll be doing laundry anyway, I don't think that the average household is going to use so many cloth napkins per week that it will outweigh disposable paper. If you had a very active compost bin and could compost the paper towels, that would be one thing, but since you live in an apartment, I imagine that's not an option. Perhaps the best scenario would be to make napkins for repurposed material like maybe some cool fabric bought at a thrift store, or maybe just from the back of your closet. Do the laundry with cold water and non-phosphate detergent and I'd say you're in pretty good shape. Our guide to greener cleaning also has some solid advise.


Washington, D.C.: What's the single biggest thing I can do to help the Earth? I recycle and buy used as much as possible, but I commute into work alone -- I try to offset that by not driving one day every weekend and living in a walkable community. I have a 900-square-foot house, only throw out one (not full) bag of trash per week (I live alone), don't fly much, I use earth-friendly products, etc. Does any of it make a difference? Humans have to have some impact on the Earth -- every living thing does, and it's not always positive -- but what is the one thing I should make sure to always do?

Collin Dunn: This is the million dollar question. Ultimately, the single biggest thing you can do is think about everything you do and look at the world with "green" shades on. Who are you supporting with your consumption? Where do your commodities, like food, water, power, etc., come from? What message does your behavior send to your friends, family and even the companies that make the things you buy? I hope this isn't too theoretical, but we feel like there is a way to make everything you do a little bit greener. If you can incorporate greener behaviors into multiple facets of your life, you really will make a difference.

For a less theoretical, more practical answer, I really feel like changing your lightbulbs to compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs -- mentioned in an earlier response) is the quickest, biggest change you can make. The short version of why this is important: the vast majority of the energy created in the country comes from dirty sources (usually coal), which contributes more to global warming and air pollution than your individual actions ever will. By demanding less energy (but still enjoying the benefits of a well-lit home), you'll eventually reduce the amount of energy produced, which starts a chain reaction on down. A close second on this would be eating local, organically-grown food and staying out from behind the wheel as much as possible.


Fairfax, Va.: I've read recommendations that it's "greener" to purchase locally-grown food at a Farmer's Market. I'm trying to do the math on how that is possible, as produce traveling long distances is shipped in much larger trucks than serve the farmer's market. Let's use strawberries as an example. An 18-wheeler can carry enough strawberries for 10,000 people. If they're shipped 1,000 miles from Florida, that's 1/10 of a mile shipped for each person. The truck at the farmer's market travels 30 miles and carries enough for 100 people. That's 3/10 of a mile shipped for each person. That's not even considering that I need to drive only a mile for the Florida berries, and 5 miles for the Farmer's Market. Please convince me that my math is messed up.

Collin Dunn: I'll start off by saying that there is more to "green" than considering how far something has come from, though that is certainly a valid part of the equation. Aside from where an item came from, TreeHugger encourages people to consider things like the conditions under which it was grown and harvested. Buying from farmer's markets often means buying directly from the farmer, who was responsible for planting, nourishing and harvesting whatever it is you're buying -- we'll say strawberries, in this instance. If you are buying form the farmer, chances are it's a small, family farm, rather than a large, industrial factory farm which produces much of the produce shipped on the back of 18-wheelers; if that's the case, many family farms, while not always certified organic, tend not to use as many pesticides, herbicides and petroleum-based fertilizers because they live adjacent to the fields and feed their own families with their crops. When it comes time for harvesting, family farms tend to be better about paying their help a living wage and giving them proper living quarters, since they rely on good help each harvesting season; factory farms are more likely to employ cheap migrant labor, which they can pay pennies on the dollar.

Buying local also tends to be higher in quality, for the simple reason that it's usually grown to taste good, rather than grown to survive a 1,000 mile truck ride in one piece. Eating local also helps us eat more seasonally; that is, eat things that are "supposed" to be growing in our particular corner of the country during that particular season: tomatoes during summer are a good example. Not only is this easier on the planet, but supports your local community.

Jacob Gordon: Jacob: I threw this question out to the TreeHugger team and got a number of responses in just a few minutes. Here are some of them:

Surely the math should focus on fuel used per person, not miles driven? Surely each mile that the truck drives, it will use an awful lot more gas than the van? He assumes they come from Florida, but often they come from California, Chile or Guatemala. More like two-thousand miles for incoming shipment. Then there is the return shipment if done empty (68 percent are).

Also, we have to think about the trips from whatever farms these were created on to the processing plant and to the shipping center. The hundred mile diet people addressed this recently (part one and part two).

Don't forget there is more than just miles.

1. Security -- if you know where your food comes from you know how to go to when you get sick (or who not to buy from in the future). Instead of getting wheat from China with Rat poison...

2. Community- buy buying local you support your community, and what grows there seasonally, which is inherently more green for resource allocation and development in your area.

Green is a subjective term of course. There is no "Green" button on a calculator. It includes better tasting better looking less need for refrigeration at packing houses, less pesticides, etc. Plus the fact that the berries traveling longer distances require not only lots more packaging to stay intact, they also must be refrigerated along the way.

Jeepers, Batman, that's a lot of info. Hope it helps forward the discussion.


Annandale, Va.: I appreciate your willingness to take questions. I think there are lots of things we can do and should not get overwhelmed by issues (someone who watched "Inconvenient Truth" on Sunday told me she felt that way). I think hybrid cars is a good example and hopefully the costs will drop so that it makes sense for most people to get one. My office installed a green roof last year. I think that is going to happen and the compact flourescents are a big upgrade. Now if we can design our neighborhoods so that people can walk more we save a lot too. Finally, a question: Is there a way to incorporate the environment and healthy living more extensively in K-12 education?

Jacob Gordon: What a great question. It's awesome to hear that your office is taking such innovative steps. What you say about neighborhoods is one of the most important points when it comes to sustainable urban planning what you describe is very much what is embodied in the New Urbanism movement. For K-12 education there are myriad resources out there. Our very own Kenny Luna is working with students to bring efficient light bulbs to everyone (check it out here) Getting hands on with trees and living plants is vital. Check out I think one of the most valuable thing that kids can learn, though, is that the world is flexible and accessible. Most kids grow up feeling like things are controlled by a small group of elite "them/they" and grow up thinking they've got no say in how things take shape. To a degree, of course, this is true and some people have more power than others. But the rules are always flexible and gumption can often override whatever disadvantages a child might have been dealt. This applies to all things, but is especially important in this time of ecological crisis that we find ourselves in.

Collin Dunn: This is a fantastic question. One quick thing I'd like to add is a word of encouragement to arrange for your school to see "An Inconvenient Truth." You can either grab a copy of the original slide show (available on DVD now from, or arrange for your a screening of an original version. Al Gore & company are working hard these days to train thousands of people (TreeHugger's own Jacob Gordon is one of them!) to give their own version of the show. Something like this recently happened in Seattle (my home base) and the good folks at were there to check it out ... turns out that the "Inconvenient Truth" message can be tailored to the younger set with good results. Read more about that event here and you can download a free companion guide for educators here. Good luck!


Washington, D.C.: I hear that the new light bulbs contain mercury. When they finally do burn out, how should they be disposed of?

Collin Dunn: You're right, CFLs do contain a bit of mercury, which exists as vapor and is trapped inside the bulb (so don't eat the bulb if it breaks!), so when they burn out, it's important not to just pitch them in the trash (mercury in the landfill is not a good thing!). Instead, head over to; they can point you to where you can recycle things like CFL bulbs, as well as just about anything else that doesn't usually go in your recycling bin. Just punch in your zip code and you're good to go!

Incidentally, CFL detractors often point to the mercury as a way to try to dissuade people from using them. While it's true that the bulbs contain a little mercury, burning coal (used by utilities to create a lot of the energy we use in our homes) also emits mercury vapor, and, it turns out, CFLs save so much energy that using incandescent bulbs actually causes more mercury to be emitted. It's true; check out this post on TreeHugger for the details.


Washington, D.C.: I tried to deal with the vampire-appliances problem a while back by turning off the power strip to my TV and cable, but the cable was angry at me when I turned it back on, and took like 20 minutes and a call to the company to reset itself. Is your organization, or another that you know of, talking with electronics or cable companies to help them be more sensitive to consumers' interest in balancing energy conservation with quick device power-ups?

Jacob Gordon: Wow, that's a great question. Yes, some devices don't like being turned off at the source. Ink jet printers, for instance, need to seal their heads before powering down. Shutting off the power can cause them to clog (throwing cartridges away is a waste of money and not green at all). Does the reboot effect still happen even when the cable box power button is turned off (assuming there is one)? I find it hard to believe that simply unplugging the box requires a call to the company each time to get it back on line. I don't have a complete answer for the cable box issue, but worse come to worse, is it possible to leave the box plugged in and still leave the TV and other electronics on the power strip?


Carbon Offsets: Can you suggest a reputable group that does carbon offsets?

Jacob Gordon: Some groups offering carbon offsets are TerraPass, Native Energy, DriveNeutral, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Carbonfund. So far, these groups all have good reputations for providing sound offsetting services. Carbon offsetting is a new idea, however, and a new field of business. We suggest staying vigilant about who you buy from and get as much information in advance as possible.


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